Monday, October 5, 2009

31 Days of Halloween: Child Rearing Rears its Ugly Head in Larry Cohen's It's Alive

Expectant mother Lenore awakens her husband, Frank, early in the morning. The excited couple gather their things and head to the hospital. Already with child, Frank is relaxed and confident. He even calms down another father-to-be, agitated with the cigarette and gumball machines. This all changes, however, when Frank witnesses one of the doctors, bloody, staggering out of the maternity ward and subsequently collapsing.

So begins Larry Cohen's 1974 horror flick, It's Alive. Cohen began his career as a TV writer, even creating the cult sci-fi series, The Invaders. After writing and directing a few blaxploitation films, including the popular Black Caesar (1973) with Fred Williamson, the filmmaker released his first movie of the horror persuasion. Cohen created dynamic characters in his movies and could make them seem like real people who are often forced into seemingly impossible situations. He wonderfully captures the anxiety and excitement of a pregnant woman going into labor at the beginning of It's Alive. Even if a viewer has never had such an experience, he/she can relate to what these characters are feeling. This makes it so much more meaningful and intense when the couple learns that their baby is mutated, a vicious beast that attacks when threatened.

Another Cohen trademark is taking the absurd and presenting it with a straight face. Cohen's films are low budget B-productions, but rarely come across as hammy. They may be tongue-in-cheek, but the films typically do not feel like the director is insincere. In his movie, God Told Me To (aka Demon), released in 1976, a cop is investigating murders committed by random people, all of whom claim, "God told me to." The Stuff (1985) is about an otherworldly substance that people find irresistible and delicious, unaware that it's actually a parasitic entity (the film's tagline was "Are you eating it... or is it eating you?"). Cohen inserts these silly B-movie plots into a world the audience feels it knows, making his films more enjoyable and, in the case of It's Alive, more terrifying.

Never one to shy away from satire, Cohen targets the media in It's Alive. Following the baby's birth and initial assault on the doctors, the police scan the hospital for the monstrous infant. Before Frank can even make it home, he hears a report on the radio concerning the attack, and he and his wife are both named. The media becomes obsessed, and reporters constantly harass the couple, leading to Frank's dismissal from his job in public relations. Frank is even asked to allow scientists the opportunity to study the baby, should it be taken alive. This is the film's best scene, as Frank essentially explains the movie's title (obviously a line taken from the cinematic version of Frankenstein). He states that he thought Frankenstein was the monster and did not realize that it was the name of the doctor until he read the book. People mixed the identities of the creator and the monster, much like the paparazzi's fixation on the mutant baby but treating the parents as freaks. This concept is perhaps more horrifying than the film's monster.

Throughout the film, Cohen plays with the idea of a monster in the form of something innocent. The baby hides inside a milk truck, but prefers the milkman over the milk. It also takes refuge in a school, playing with toys and killing the police officers who believe they have it cornered. Somehow the baby makes it home in a terrific and suspenseful sequence, as Frank realizes that all the milk and packaged meat is missing from the house. The film ends with an inevitable confrontation, showcasing a marvelous performance by John P. Ryan as Frank. The movie avoids a typical horror film ending, with a feeling of relief or a final shock. It's bittersweet, almost as if it were a drama (which, in many respects, it is).

Unfortunately for pregnant couples, mutant babies continued being spawned in the sequels, It Lives Again (1978) and It's Alive III: Island of the Alive (1987), both written and directed by Cohen. A remake starring Bijou Phillips was recently made. It is set for release straight-to-DVD tomorrow, Oct. 6th.


  1. Sark, I saw IT’S ALIVE when it was first released and admit my expectations were low—after all, it was a movie about a killer baby! But you’re right about Cohen’s ability to create believable characters and place them in unbelievable situations…thus making those situations more believable. I think it helps, too, that his films avoid big-name stars; he casts good actors that look and talk like ordinary people. I agree that John Ryan is very good as the baby’s father…he’s even better in the first sequel. This was a very insightful review (I also liked your point about the use of media, which also makes the happenings seem more real…a technique used by George Romero in the more celebrated NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD). By the way, that's one creepy photo of the baby!

  2. Sark, As a dad this post freaks me out. Good job, I think I'll miss this one and all the others two.

  3. Sark, this is a very thought-provoking post. The analogy of Frankenstein and the monster to Lenore and Frank and It is quite excellent. Lenore and Frank, however, are innocent of any intent of possible wrongdoing while Frankenstein knowingly assembles dead body parts as he seeks to play God and create life. But society always wants to blame someone and, hence, Lenore and Frank are ostracized. I was thinking of name significance and recalled the Poe poem "Lenore" while Frank is an abbreviated reference to your analogous Frankenstein. I appreciated the plot details as it has been 35 years since the release date. The use of milk and school sounds so innocent yet killing ensues around them. Your review is intensely visual, Sark, and I enjoyed your in-depth analysis.

  4. Sark, this is an outstanding post about IT'S ALIVE. I have always loved this movie. I saw it when I was a kid. I watch it whenever it is on TV. It is a scary and sad movie. The baby monster kills people, but It does so as a baby. As the film progessed, I felt such sympathy for the parents especially the father. My favorite scene is in the delivery room. I have the theme music to this movie on an old record of Bernard Herrmann's film classics. It is a haunting melody. I have also seen the sequel IT LIVES AGAIN and like it too, but it is not as good or creepy as the original movie because you know the "new babies" will be monsters. The idea of an organization for protecting "baby monsters" is an unique idea though. I don't mind if a horror movie is low budget, I just enjoy the story. I am so excited about seeing the remake. Even if the remake is dumb, I will like it anyway.

  5. Thanks to all for reading my post and for your kind words.

    Rick -- Romero did indeed utilize the media in a similar manner as Cohen in his landmark horror flick, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. I think, like Cohen, he was critical of the media's approach to unusual occurrences like mutated infants and a plethora of ghouls.

    Toto -- Frank was certainly meant to be a condensed version of Frankenstein, as if he were the doctor, but you're right: the parents in IT'S ALIVE are innocents, whereas Dr. Frankenstein is a victim of his own obsession.

    Aki -- I've got the IT'S ALIVE remake in my Netflix queue. Actually, it might be on the way to my house. I'll let you know how it is. And I agree that IT LIVES AGAIN isn't as good as the original, but I much prefer it over the third one, which still isn't bad.

  6. Sark, i have not seen this film.. but, your awesome review had me jumping out of my seat.

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  8. I removed that post above by mistake...with apologies...Sark - well-written & interesting tho I haven't seen it.